By Charles Ferruzza
A cowpoke can become a cattle baron — but it isn’t easy.
Rob Magee was something of a cattle baron before he opted for the cowpoke life. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Magee spent a long career on the culinary side of the hotel business, working for international chains such as Westin and Hilton. Then, after more than a decade as executive chef for the Hilton Kansas City Airport property, he hit the smoke-and-brisket circuit in 2002. His Munchin’ Hogs team would go on to great things in competition barbeque — great enough to herd Magee back to the restaurant ranch. He’s now chef and co–owner of the two–month–old Q39.
Magee didn’t need the hassle or the potential heartbreak of a brick–and–mortar operation. And KC isn’t hurting for barbeque. But Q39 lives up to Magee’s pitmaster reputation — it’s one of the best new barbeque joints to open in the metro in a long time.
It helps that Magee clearly understands that it takes more than tender smoked meats to attract diners. Too many novice restaurateurs (and at least one veteran barbeque maven I’m thinking of) rely on a “build it and they will come” mentality, which shortchanges some key elements of the dining experience: professional service, stylish surroundings, an inspired menu.
Mind you, I said stylish, not sleek or over-polished. I’m not a fan of attempts to homogenize or suburbanize the smoky, grungy joints that are, for most people (me included), the essence of barbeque. Yes, Jack Fiorello, the affable restaurateur who built the Jack Stack restaurant chain, taught us that barbeque lovers like having an alternative to the greasy shack. But even he knows that not everyone needs a well–shaken martini and a cloth napkin to get the most out of a sauce–slathered brisket.
I am a fan of cloth napkins, though, and I was happy to see that Magee and his wife, Kelly (a Hallmark executive who can frequently be seen working in the dining room), use linens at Q39. They also have bartenders who can mix a swell cocktail, and they serve their house–made sauces in glazed–pottery ramekins. Style points all around, then, with the restaurant staying just on the right side of the glossiness spectrum.
Not that Magee’s restaurant is on a particularly swanky stretch of 39th Street. Before he gutted the building, it was an unattractive Chinese place with a dubious buffet. Now it has concrete floors and tasteful light fixtures. It’s the sort of room, in fact, where a thyme–scented white–bean cassoulet or a cheese fondue (with soft pretzels and apples) doesn’t look out of place. But those things tasted out of place to me. I wanted a messy pile of pulled pork — something simple but done well.
The simple stuff is supposed to be the best, and here, it is. The beef brisket is gorgeously tender, the burnt ends cut on the bias instead of into blocky little cubes (an epiphany, baby), the spare ribs meaty and not at all dry or overcooked. And the pulled pork I craved? Moist and flavorful from its soak in an apple brine.
Not every simplicity is as sublime as the best of the meat. The fries may be house–cut, but the ones I sampled were too salty. And I detested the potato salad, its spuds unappealingly al dente. I found an antidote in the creamy macaroni and cheese: cavatappi noodles blanketed in a rich cheese sauce. (That’s why you don’t bother with the fondue.)
Sauce isn’t mild here, but it’s not overpowering, either, with the “zesty” version taking the most bite and the “classic” boasting a subtler but still distinctive fire. A chipotle take isn’t the tongue–burner I hoped it would be, but at least it — like every other sauce here — avoids sweetness.
The burgers, made with ground brisket and Black Angus beef, are expensive but very good. A server one day talked me into trying the burnt–end burger, and I’m glad; the one I ate was excellent. You’re better off attacking it with a knife and a fork, the better to savor a jumble of spicy pickle slaw on top of the meat. The signature slaw here is a creamy concoction made with Granny Smith apples and onions; it’s a fine complement to the spicier offerings, such as a barbequed chicken sandwich topped with chipotle mayo, or the jumbo chicken wings whose shiny glaze betrays a searing note behind the first bite.
The service is attentive and professional, but when the dining room is really busy, the crew scurries around at a near sprint, sometimes bumping into tables or even patrons in their unbridled zeal. With all that sauce in all that handsome crockery, the risks are clear.
The desserts are made in–house, and I give high marks to the hot apple crumble and the creamy cheesecake. I’m resistant to the trend of sugar–dusted doughnuts as an after–dinner dolce, but the golfball–sized spheres at Q39 are both soft and slightly chewy and reach a state approaching grandeur when dipped in the accompanying chocolate and raspberry sauces.
Magee is an old–school chef who cuts an imposing figure, and he whips around his exhibition kitchen like John Wayne through Monument Valley. That alone sets his new venture apart from its barbeque peers. But the man also has a refined sensibility when it comes to taste, texture and quality, and that makes the bigger difference. Opening any kind of restaurant is always a gamble, but Magee is already a master of the game. His place is running so smoothly that it’s hard to believe Magee didn’t put down stakes here years ago.